Randy Wittman played four years of college basketball at Indiana University. He played there for Bobby Knight, one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports. In Wittman’s sophomore season, the Hoosiers won a national title. In his senior season, Wittman was Big Ten Player of the Year on a team that won the conference. After his highly successful collegiate career, Wittman went on to play ten seasons of NBA basketball. Most of those seasons were with the Atlanta Hawks, coached by winner of more than 1200 games and the 1985-86 NBA Coach of the Year Award, Mike Fratello. Shortly after his playing career ended, Wittman entered the coaching ranks himself. He spent eight seasons as an NBA assistant coach, most of them under Flip Saunders with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the early seasons of Kevin Garnett’s career. With that incredible basketball resume’, Witt finally landed his first head coaching job. He was hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1999 and spent two seasons on their bench before being fired.
I list these career accomplishments of Wittman not because I want to write his biography, but because when he later coached the Timberwolves I criticized his abilities and decisions countless times even though I am 100 percent sure that he understands basketball much better than I do. Wittman learned as a player from hugely successful coaches in both college and the pros, put in the work as an assistant for different teams and head coaches and even spent two years as a head coach of an NBA team before he took over control of the Wolves. Yet, because he was not successful and he made certain decisions that I, watching from my couch, disagreed with, I felt it appropriate to tell whoever would listen how terrible Wittman was at his job, sometimes offering my own ideas of how to do things better. On one hand, this makes me feel a little bit like a jackass. By ripping on Wittman and explaining what could be done better, I’m implicitly suggesting that I know more than he does about his job, even though I know that not to be the case. But on the other hand, that’s part of being a fan. The coaches and players get the fame and fortune, and the paying-customer fans get their freedom of speech to applaud, criticize and second guess to their heart’s desires. For modern fans who take to internet blogging, criticism is about 50 percent of the experience, depending on your disposition and the team you’re cheering for. Criticizing player performance is less of a problem–at the professional level, at least–as long as everybody understands that it is relative to other professionals. Obviously, Jonny Flynn and Darko Milicic are great basketball players across the spectrum of human beings, or even human beings who grew up trying to become good basketball players. But in NBA world, they stink.
Rick Adelman is a much better coach than Randy Wittman, which makes criticizing him even more discomfiting. If you’re a regular reader of my game wraps, you know that I’ve been harshly criticizing Adelman’s decision to give extended minutes to Malcolm Lee. This is a player rotation issue, which in my opinion is an area that informed fans can be well-equipped to analyze. The best analysts (Zach Lowe comes to mind) place sharp focus on which lineup combinations work, and which don’t work. While we don’t have access to watch practices, we do watch all of the games. For statistics, we not only have the box scores, but all of the aggregate measures that Basketball-Reference and 82games provide. While we don’t have a perfect understanding of the coaches’ objectives in every set play or defensive assignment, we can view the results and decide accordingly which players are doing the kinds of things that lead to wins and losses. This is me justifying a criticism of a Hall of Famer that is doing an incredible job of coaching my favorite team. Adelman is awesome; possibly my favorite coach in basketball before he was even hired by the Wolves. So even if I get a little snarky from time to time, just know that I never for a moment think I know more about this here game than Adelman does.
There, that’s off my chest. Now stop playing Malcolm Lee.